Photographing the old man, the big miss, the mighty Mississip!
Way back last fall, when the weather was only slightly warmer than it is today (or so it seems), I was fortunate to accompany the fine folks of Anheuser Busch on another one of their great Mississippi River cleanups. (You can read more about them here and here. And I encourage you to participate. They really are fun events and you feel really good about making a tangible improvement on the river.)
Toward the end of the day, while walking back along a vast sand bar that had formed along the shore for a good mile or more of river, my walking partner and I were fascinated by these little black chunks we were seeing in the sand.
They looked like river rocks that were worn smooth by the water. But they were light. Very light. So light, in fact, that they seemed more like burned wood. Almost like someone had sawn a sapling into disks and burned them into charcoal. This should’ve been a clue, but I was a little too dense to pick up on it.
We kept seeing these things every few paces along the sand bar. The mystery was riveting.
It wasn’t until we were joined by another person, clearly much smarter than me, that we figured it out. Actually he figured it out, and without too much trouble at all.
“Look at these things. They’re like rocks but lighter, like wood but clearly not.”
He stopped, knelt down and picked one up.
“It’s coal,” he said.
Well duh. Why didn’t I think of that?
Of course it’s coal. Barges loaded full of coal travel up and down the river all day and night. The coal is piled high on the barges and, clearly, is occasionally washed off into the river, where it floats along–or tumbles along, more likely–until it washes up onto the sand and is embedded, where it will remain to puzzle dense photographers who should know better.
Ultimately I thought this was simply a neat way to come into direct contact with a lot of things I never really think about–from the fuel we use to power our electrical grid to the river that transports that fuel, along with all the products that power our economy–day and night right here under our noses.
And I meant to put this lump of coal in my wife’s stocking at Christmas, but I totally forgot. Maybe next year.
Bill made his first darkroom print at age 10 and was instantly hooked. He's a commercial photographer in St. Louis specializing in portraiture for discerning advertising, editorial and corporate clients. He's been the chief photographer at Barlow since 2000.